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REVIEW: A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins

April 21, 2013

Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui

Two thousand and tweleve seems to have been the year for technologists to have turned their hands to literature and the increasingly blurry lines between science, art and humanity. This is perhaps not quite as surprising as it might have been a decade ago: literature, which has (almost) always looked towards exploring the nature of what it means to be human by means of stories, parables, myths and speculation, is now losing ground to science.

Not ‘pure’ science, mind you. These are disparate disciplines that weave and bob around the human question, coming at it through multiple lenses: neurobiology, artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology, even anthropology. In keeping with this, there’s no astonishment to be found in the idea that the secrets of humanisation may lie not in Tolstoy and Shakespeare, but instead in the cryptographic genius of Alan Turing and social media data-mining.

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins is more inwards-looking and less literarily flashy than its contemporaries, say for example, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but that doesn’t prevent it from being just as entertaining. The narrator is one Neill Bassett Jr., a 30-something Arkansas native living in San Francisco, divorced, footloose, and just a tiny bit emotionally stunted. Unlike many other protagonists of similar tales set in the same city, Neill is not a computer programmer or scientist, although he does work with two such venerable individuals in a small start-up. This company, Amiante Systems, is working on creating an artificial intelligence, or as Neill wryly puts it, a “grandiose linguistic computer project”.

The whole point behind this high-end technology project is to create an “intelligent computer,” one that’s smart (read, ‘human’) enough to trick people into believing it’s a real person. What differentiates the Amiante project from the competition is its source code(x): the diaries of “the Samuel Pepys of the South”. The information in these diaries — 5,000 pages’ worth — is being loaded into an automated chat programme known as “drbas” (for reasons that become obvious early on). This diarist is (or was) another Bassett, Neill’s father. Much like Turing, the late Dr Bassett committed suicide; and this is the first of the many ironic moments in A Working Theory of Love, the concept of one suicide’s journals being used to beat the test devised by another.

As he administers this virtual kiss of life to a veritable Venn diagram of philosophy, artificial intelligence and psychology, we see Neill groping for an explanation for his father’s suicide. As Neill converses with “drbas,” who gets smarter with each interaction, the more uncomfortable he becomes with the ensuing “conversations,” forcing as they do his acknowledgement of a painful past that he had buried deep down inside.

A Working Theory of Love is a novel sort of novel, in that despite focusing on something very precise, it expands into grander themes: what does it mean to be conscious? Is love nothing more than chemicals and delusions? What does it mean to connect with someone else; is it all an act, or is there greater meaning behind such links? Hutchins may have the answers, but he’s cagey about positing solutions to the problems that he raises. Instead, he uses the conceit of Neill doubting his father’s affections and searching for answers in his own memories to explore the idea of how connections are formed, what they mean, and whether if something comes across as being real, it actually is real.

When not engaged in virtual dialogues, Neill is out and about on the town, looking to assuage his loneliness. Although by the time the novels begins, he is not as frenzied as he was immediately following his divorce, Neill is still, as Hutchins subtly points out, lonely enough to conflate promiscuity with happiness. A conversation with the “ghost in the shell” of his father leads to a check-in at a youth hostel in the search of a one-night stand (Rachel) who turns out to be the real-life counterpart of the electronic “drbas”, pushing Neill to emerge from his cocoon of denial and internalised emotion.

It is Rachel who leads Neill to the realisation that even if she isn’t his one true love, so what? “You meet someone, date them, and when it’s over you gather the good parts and carry them into the future, shedding the bad, if possible.” This realisation isn’t really new at all, and Hutchins-as-Neill knows it. “I’ll want landmarks, after all,” Neill says to us, “should I wake up amnesiac, lost”. But the course of love, true or otherwise, never did run smooth, and on his journey of revelation, Neill winds up dealing with, among other things, a Californian sex cult, a brief relationship with another woman and a tremulous rekindling of his friendship with his ex-wife.

All of this is very funny and endearing, but where Hutchins excels is in his unspoken (and possibly assumed) attempt to find a grand unified theory of consciousness. This is fundamentally the idea behind the Turing test, and in a larger way, behind A Working Theory of Love: no matter what the form, if what you’re dealing with seems to be something, then it is that something. If a hidden respondent (machine or otherwise) can convince you that it is a human being, how can you legitimately argue that it isn’t? This logical positivism is the highlight of the novel and is best illustrated by the conversations that Neill has with his dead father’s surrogate mouthpiece, which, as the novel progresses, becomes more and more compelling as a personality rather than as a programme.

It is also the low point of the story, in that Hutchins manages to somehow relegate these dialogues to the back-burner. The story sparks and flares in the scenes in which the team at Amiante get into back-and-forth Zen-koan-like conversations with “drbas,” but Hutchins’ exploration of Neill’s background and context, whether romantic, sexual or historic, almost inevitably turns what could have been a magnesium torch of revelation into a slightly damp squib of incremental insight.

Hitchens excels, however, in showing us the zeitgeist of the Bay Area, the one part of the world that has not only “outsourced poverty,” but where technology is almost a fundamental force of creation. Hutchins uses the mouthpiece of Neill to cut his own grandiose concepts down to size though, commenting on the fact that this quest to develop “real” artificial intelligence will “aim at consciousness” while simultaneously resulting in “a new answering system for United Airlines”.

And he doesn’t stop there. Hutchins peppers his writing with tongue-in-cheek remarks that demonstrate how this New Wave of creators is both super-smart and incredibly dull. You see this particularly in moments such as when Neill’s boss, Dr Livorno, expresses his hope that “drbas” will be the first step to when human beings “transition our personalities from ageing, decomposing bodies over to timeless, never-changing computer chips, and thereby live forever”. Because, you know, immortality paired with stasis is clearly preferable to transience that carries a price-tag of dynamic experiences, as long as we get to “upgrade”.

But forget all this talk of death. A Working Theory of Love is anything but tragic. In hypotheses, it finds truth; in speculation, it identifies reality. Hutchins avoids esoterica and intellectual chicanery, focusing instead on delivering a synaesthesia of emotion and thought that is as evocative of sensation as it is provocative of thought. Neill Bassett isn’t shy about sharing his own thoughts of what it means to love and live in this century. You would have to be a genuine automaton to not be at least slightly moved by his story.


A Working Theory of Love


By Scott Hutchins

Penguin Books, US

ISBN 1594205051